Countrymen Rinne, Niemi reach first NHL playoffs

Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Chicago’s Antti Niemi share a

homeland. On Friday night, the two Finnish goaltenders will have

something else in common when they make their debuts in the Stanley

Cup playoffs.

The 6-foot-5 Rinne went 32-16-5 this season and hopes to use his

big frame to block the net for the seventh-seeded Predators.

Niemi, a 26-year-old rookie, took over late in the season as the

Blackhawks’ top goalie, starting the final nine games. He had a

six-game winning streak before Chicago lost in overtime to Detroit

in the season finale Sunday, knocking the Blackhawks into the

second slot in the Western Conference.

With goaltending one of the biggest questions for the talented

Blackhawks this season, Niemi supplanted Cristobal Huet as the

starter and finished the season 26-7-4.

Niemi and Rinne each had seven shutouts.

“Both teams got young goalies and the comparisons are pretty

accurate, very similar in a lot of ways,” Chicago coach Joel

Quenneville said.

Chicago won the season series 4-2 but the teams haven’t played

since Dec. 27. The 27-year-old Rinne was 1-2 against the Blackhawks

in the regular season, though he posted a shutout Oct. 29 in

Nashville.

Niemi, who is 6-foot-2, was 1-0 against the Predators with a 5-4

win with Dan Ellis in goal for Nashville. Niemi said he doesn’t

know Rinne well but did face him a couple of times in Finnish

league play. Rinne is from Kempele, Finland, and Niemi is from

Vantaa.

“I never really talked with him. I played against him back home

a couple of times a long time ago,” Niemi said. “I don’t know him

too much, but he’s a good goalie.”

Since the Olympic break, Rinne is 12-4-1 with a 2.03 GAA and

.928 save percentage. He also had four shutouts in that span.

The question about both Rinne and Niemi is how they handle the

pressure of the postseason, where the crowd is louder, the lights

brighter and the play much more physical. Both teams will be trying

to create traffic and congestion in front of the net to screen the

opposing goalie and set up rebound chances.

“It’s the same thing. It’s just trying to stop the puck and

keep it simple,” Rinne said. “I mean everybody’s always asking

what I’m going to change for the playoff. I think there’s not too

many things I want to change. … I think I gained some confidence,

I want to keep going and just kind of prepare the same way I’ve

been doing so far.”

Huet, who was a backup to Nikolai Khabibulin a year ago when the

Blackhawks reached the Western Conference finals, couldn’t keep the

No. 1 job this year, and when Niemi got his chance, he seized

it.

“I don’t know if there was a defining moment,” Quenneville

said. “We just kept alternating goaltenders for a stretch there

and he took advantage of playing in consecutive games.”

Niemi’s teammates, many of whom got into the playoffs for the

first time a year ago, aren’t worried about his lack of postseason

experience.

“He’s been great for us. It’s not a concern at all,” said

Chicago star Jonathan Toews. “A lot of us were in that situation

last year. We enjoyed it and made the best of it. It’s going to be

new for him, but we got a lot of experience in this locker

room.”

And, of course, the Predators feel the same way about their guy

in net.

“The way he finished the season, just the mindset for the

playoffs, we have no doubt about that. We feel so confident in our

goaltending situation. We know Pekka is going to do the job,” said

Nashville right wing J.P. Dumont.

Niemi appreciates his progress after signing a free agent

contract with the Blackhawks less than two years ago. He spent most

of last season in the AHL. Now he’s being counted on by a young,

talented offensive team in search of the franchise’s first Stanley

Cup title since 1961.

The Blackhawks can’t have a goaltender letdown against a team as

solid as the Predators .

“Before the season I didn’t see this coming, but for some time

I’ve known it is possible. It has come real fast,” Niemi said.

“Overall the biggest thing is getting games and getting more

confident. I think that’s the biggest deal.”

Nerves right now are not so bad, Niemi said. But as Friday’s

opener nears?

“I think I’m going to be able to sleep,” he said.

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AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed

to this report.